Religion at heart of Turkish vote

Times Staff Writer

Vacationing just a few miles apart on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, the economist from Istanbul and the engineer from Ankara could hardly have more divergent views of a nationwide vote Sunday that is expected to return the ruling party to power -- and intensify an ongoing battle over the role of Islam in public life.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has roots in political Islam, is “just too Muslim, too radical,” said Reha Guner, drinking tea in a cafe just off a crowded beach where European tourists sunbathed topless and beer flowed freely. “They want to hold the country back. That’s why these elections are so important.”

Down the road, at a resort that caters to religiously observant families, engineer Ahmet Alintuglu said pious Muslims like him often feel marginalized in a republic whose 8-decade-old founding principles mandate a strict separation of Islam and government.

“We’re a so-called Muslim country, but we are treated like second-class citizens, even when we are on vacation,” Alintuglu said. He and his family, he complained, were forced to pay premium prices to secure the hotel amenities they wanted: gender-segregated swimming pools, modest dress in public areas and a ban on alcohol.


Though parting ways at the ballot box, Guner and Alintuglu had this much in common: Like tens of thousands of Turks, each was cutting short the traditional summer holiday to return home to vote in the parliamentary elections, which are shaping up as among the country’s most divisive in recent memory.

The Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, is expected to garner the largest share of seats, but not enough to render it immune to challenges by the secular-minded opposition.

Picking a president

That could set the stage for months of fresh political warfare over parliament’s election of the country’s president. The AKP is determined to claim the post, although it has always been held by a resolute secularist.

In April, the AKP put forth as its presidential candidate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a sophisticated, English-speaking diplomat whose wife wears the head scarf that connotes a devout Muslim woman.

For secularists, the notion of such a first lady proved a psychological tripwire. Huge protest rallies were held, the military threatened to step in to preserve secular principles, and the Constitutional Court, citing a technicality, threw out a parliamentary vote that favored Gul.

The standoff left both sides furious, with AKP supporters accusing the secular establishment of acting undemocratically, and secular parties insisting that the AKP, despite a record focused on successfully fostering economic growth, had revealed its hidden Islamist agenda.

The AKP managed to push through a package of constitutional reforms that would change the means of picking the president to a popular vote, but outgoing President Necdet Sezer ensured that the package itself must be put to a referendum. That will not take place until October, well after the new parliament’s one-month deadline for electing a new president to a seven-year term.


For a campaign taking place against such an acrimonious backdrop, the electioneering has been almost incongruously peaceful. On almost every major boulevard, colorful party banners flutter like sheets on clotheslines. Sound trucks ply the streets, playing scratchy-sounding versions of pop tunes appropriated as campaign jingles, with rewritten lyrics that blandly extol the virtues of the Turkish nation.

At its campaign rallies, though, the AKP has been tapping into the simmering anger of supporters who believe the party was robbed of the presidency. “The Cankaya will be ours!” the crowd shouted at a recent rally in Istanbul, referring to Turkey’s presidential palace.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his voice hoarsened by back-to-back appearances in the final week of campaigning, assured backers of imminent victory. “We’ll bury them at the ballot box,” he told a cheering, flag-waving throng.

Polls suggest that the AKP will secure about 45% of the vote, twice as much as its nearest rival and enough to secure a comfortable majority in the 550-member parliament, given how seats are apportioned. Many analysts, however, say the party’s appeal is due as much to the booming economy as to ideological considerations.


During its five years in power, the AKP has presided over the longest period of uninterrupted growth in the country’s recent history, with per capita income more than doubling and rampant inflation largely tamed. That growth spurt has engendered a phenomenon previously unseen in Turkey: a religiously devout middle class prepared to exercise its political clout as well as flex its economic muscle.

The AKP has “created a new bourgeoisie,” said columnist Cuneyt Ulsever of the Hurriyet daily newspaper. “That’s a departure from the tradition of an almost exclusively secular middle class. So the picture here is not only one of a political struggle, or a religious one; there are class issues as well.”

Much of the dynamic economic growth has been generated by the so-called “Anatolian tigers,” a grouping of exportoriented industries in the religiously conservative Turkish heartland that have benefited hugely from the government’s free-market policies.

One key element of the AKP’s break from Turkey’s insular, cartel-style economy has been its push to join the European Union. Although those hopes have dimmed in recent months, the membership drive has spurred calls for reform in other areas, including press freedom and human rights.


Analysts say Turkey’s particular brand of political Islam, as exemplified by the AKP, is unique in the Muslim world.

“It’s progressive and outward-looking -- the most evolved of anywhere in a Muslim-majority country,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The secular parties, by contrast, have a strong streak of authoritarianism, often invoking the army’s right to intervene in politics in its self-declared role as the guardian of the secular state. At street rallies this spring, many marchers also gave vent to anti-American and anti-European sentiments, blaming Western powers for meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs.

Secularists are wary


But the secularists’ fears that the AKP will seek to erode the separation of religion and state are very real. The party, which is a breakaway branch of an Islamist movement that came to the fore in the 1980s and ‘90s, made abortive attempts early in its tenure to criminalize adultery and ease the restrictions on the wearing of head scarves in public universities and other government institutions.

Even though the AKP insists that such measures are no longer part of its platform, there is deep distrust among secularists, particularly women, who believe that they have the most to lose by any state-mandated imposition of religious values.

“It matters more to me because I am a woman,” said Hayal Ersoz, a 20-year-old university student wearing tight jeans and glittery sandals. “I don’t want to limit anyone’s freedom to express their religious beliefs, but I want to work where I please, and dress as I please, and I don’t believe I will be able to do that if they have all the power.”

By that, most secularists mean they draw the line at an AKP member becoming president. Because the post has veto power over legislation, the president is seen as a check on the ruling party’s power.


Despite the AKP’s insistence that it will lay claim to the presidency once a new parliamentary mandate has been secured, some analysts say there are signs that Erdogan will seek a compromise. In recent weeks, the party’s list of candidates has been purged of dozens of people with a reputation for hard-line religious views.

“In the end, most of the Turkish public is comfortable with a mixture of secularism and religion in their daily lives,” said Fadi Hakura, an analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“And the indications are that the party really does intend to pursue a reformist line. But the question is whether the antagonism with the secular establishment is already too great for that to go forward.”